HOUSTON — If you’re looking for an October formula, look no further than the Chicago Cubs’ 90th win of the season, a 2-0 shutout of the Houston Astros on Friday night. It played out to perfection, beginning with Jon Lester throwing some nasty breaking balls and ending with Aroldis Chapman firing heat in the form of 104 mph fastballs. In between, the Cubs got key production from Kris Bryant and Hector Rondon. Let’s break it down:
Lester should play craps at a local Houston casino after pitching seven innings while giving up seven hits and striking out seven, all while helping reduce the Cubs’ magic number to, you guessed it, seven.
“Jonny is on a good roll right now,” manager Joe Maddon said after the game. “As a Cub, this is the best I’ve seen his stuff consistently. … He has a good curve, it was even sharper.”
There’s no doubt left that Lester deserves to start Game 1 of the playoffs and get two starts in Round 1 if need be. His best moment came in the seventh inning as he hit the century mark in pitches. That’s when Maddon has been pulling his starters lately, so when Colby Rasmus came to the plate with the tying run at second base, it felt like the game — and Lester’s night — were on the line.
“I felt like that was the big turning point in the game,” Lester said.
Rasmus struck out looking on a 3-2 pitch as Lester pumped his fist and flexed his muscles walking off the mound. His night was done just like it might be in a playoff game — after seven innings.
“I kind of thought that was my last hitter,” Lester said. “It was nice Joe let me go and get that last batter.”
Seven might be all Lester throws because Rondon looked like his old self in putting the Astros away 1-2-3 in the eighth inning.
“I didn’t know exactly what to expect right there,” Maddon said of Rondon. “It was over the top.”
We’ve all seen Rondon when he’s at his nastiest; this was that guy. Hitting 96 and 97 mph on the radar gun, then breaking off a nasty slider. You can imagine how a playoff game would set up for Rondon in the eighth inning and then the Cubs’ flame-throwing closer in the ninth.
Chapman was rested, and when he’s rested, watch out, the radar gun is going to go nuts. He consistently was over 100 mph as he also saw only three Astros.
“How about the relief pitchers?” Maddon asked rhetorically. “I think the average velocity was 100 between those two.”
If things really go right next month, Rondon and Chapman will be called upon without many other relievers getting off their seat in the bullpen. The pitching performance Friday was a taste of what it could look like: Lester to Rondon to Chapman. Cubs win.
But pitching alone didn’t win this game as Bryant hit his 37th home run of the season to account for all of the scoring by both teams. It’s fitting Bryant hit one against the team that passed on him in the 2013 draft, though he would have liked to hit at Minute Maid Park. Left field has a short porch.
“BP (batting practice) was fun for sure,” Bryant said after putting on a show. “Don’t hit to center.”
Bryant is one of the few guys who could probably hit it out to straightaway center. He homered to left Friday, but not before needing a couple of at-bats against Astros starter Joe Musgrove. This was classic Bryant. He struck out — and looked bad doing so — with Dexter Fowler on third base and no outs in the first. Then he started to feel more comfortable and worked a walk in the third. Finally, he figured Musgrove out and hit his home run in the fifth. Struggle, learn, adjust. It’s Bryant at his best.
“I didn’t see the ball well at all,” Bryant said of his first at-bat. “Second at-bat, tried to see some pitches. … Those first three at-bats were to a tee how I like going about making adjustments.”
Bryant was great, so was the bullpen, but everything comes back to Lester. Maddon has often said the Cubs aren’t in the position they’re in — winning 90 games on Sept. 9 — without their starting staff pitching out of this world. And Lester is the leader of that pack. He’s the guy you want to have the ball right now in the most intense moments. It might be September but he gave an October performance.
“He doesn’t cower from it,” Maddon said. “He actually loves it. … He absolutely relishes it.”